“The nation’s eyes are on Virginia,” Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin declared on the campaign trail this past weekend. “As Virginia goes, so goes the nation.”
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states to hold gubernatorial races in the year after a presidential election, guaranteeing they both grab outsized attention. And Virginia, a onetime general election battleground that’s still very competitive between the two major parties, is seen as a key barometer ahead of next year’s midterms, when the Democrats will be defending their razor-thin majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate.
“On Tuesday, people will be looking at it as a bellwether of what is to come. And I want Virginia to once again show this country the way to go,” Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, emphasized as he campaigned over the weekend with the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The final polls in the showdown indicated a margin-of-error race, and a victory in Youngkin in a state President Biden carried by 10 points last November and where Republicans haven’t won statewide in a dozen years would raise Democrats’ anxieties ahead of next year’s battle for control of Congress.
While they’re not on the ballot, both the president and former President Trump have been front and center in the race.
President Biden speaks at a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
McAuliffe has been battling an enthusiasm gap among Democrats, who may be politically spent after the bruising 2020 fight to defeat Trump, demoralized by Biden’s flagging poll numbers, and frustrated with the current lack of progress by the president and congressional Democrats on their social spending and human infrastructure measure and other top priorities.
And a defeat in Virginia in the first major election during Biden’s tenure in the White House would serve as a major political setback for a president who’s already endured a very rocky late summer and autumn.
McAuliffe, hoping to fire up Democrats, has brought in his party’s biggest stars to join him on the campaign trail, from Biden to former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other top politicians. And the former governor hasn’t wasted an opportunity at his events, in his interviews, and in his campaign’s statements and ads to link Youngkin to Trump, who has endorsed the GOP nominee.
“Trump wants to win here so he can announce for president for 2024,” McAuliffe said at a canvassing kickoff on Sunday. “That’s the stakes of this election. He wants to get himself off the mat.
The strategy is simple: Opposition to Trump sparked heavy turnout by Democrats during his presidency, helping to fuel the blue wave that enabled the Democrats to convincingly win back the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms and help propel Biden to victory over Trump in last November’s election. And while he continued to hold plenty of sway over Republican voters in Virginia and nationwide as he flirts with another White House run, the final polls in the Virginia race indicated that Trump remains very unpopular among Democrats and independent voters in the commonwealth.
“Youngkin’s entire campaign has been a full embrace of Donald Trump’s dangerous extremism: divisive culture wars, racist dog whistles and bigotry,” McAuliffe charged on Monday, hours before the former present held a tele-rally for Youngkin, which the GOP nominee avoided as he held his own separate election eve rally.
The lack of a Trump-Youngkin event didn’t stop McAuliffe from falsely claiming on Monday night that the Republican nominee “is doing an event with Donald Trump here in Virginia.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin gestures as he speaks to supporters during a rally in Chesterfield, Virginia, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin in the spring helped the first-time candidate and former private equity CEO win Virginia’s heavily contested GOP nomination. But Youngkin’s kept the former president at arm’s length during the general election. Unlike McAuliffe, he’s eschewed campaigning with top Republican surrogates, such as Trump.
“It is just killing Trump that he is not here, obviously,” McAuliffe argued last week. “I think Trump is trying to play whichever happens, Trump is always going to claim credit for himself no matter whatever happens.”
While it’s dangerous to read too much into the results in Virginia, the state has a history of voting against the gubernatorial nominee of the party that captured the White House the preceding year. McAuliffe broke that streak in 2013, when he won his first term as governor (Virginia law prevents governors from serving two consecutive terms) in the year after Obama was reelected as president.
McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial victory didn’t foreshadow the GOP’s red wave in the 2014 midterms, when they recaptured the Senate. But former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory in Virginia – a year after Obama captured the White House – did precede the GOP tidal wave of 2010, when the party retook the House. And current Gov. Ralph Northam’s victory in 2017 – a year after Trump won the presidency, teed up the Democrats’ blue wave in the 2018 midterms, when the convincingly won back the House majority.